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What is the letter U called when it says the /w/ sound in words like suede and penguin? I've read that y and w are semivowels but the U in suede and penguin doesn't really conform to the definition of a semivowel, and experts don't recognise it as a semivowel, so I was wondering if there was another category that I don't know about. I'd like to be able to explain why the U says /w/.

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    It's called... "the letter U". Seriously though, what do you mean? I don't understand what type of word you're looking for. Can you give an example sentence showing the context where you'd need a word like this? – herisson Jun 28 '16 at 7:05
  • I've read that y and w are semi vowels but the U in suede and penguin doesn't really conform to the definition of a semi vowel, and experts don't recognise it as a semi vowel, so I was wondering if there was another category that I don't know about. I'd like to be able to explain why the U says /w/. – Lexia Jun 28 '16 at 7:10
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    What do you think "semivowel" means? What experts don't recognize it as a semivowel in these examples? What do those experts recognize it as instead? – phoog Jun 28 '16 at 7:15
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    The sound /w/ is called a semivowel (this term is written as one word, not as two). It can exist in words no matter how they're spelled—the semivowel /w/ is in the word suede, but also in the words wet and one. If you want to describe the different sounds letters can make, I think you just need to use a phrase like "non-syllabic U". – herisson Jun 28 '16 at 7:31
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    If you want a name for it you could find it in the vowel chart in the phonetic alphabet: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Phonetic_Alphabet#Vowels – Max Williams Jun 28 '16 at 7:39
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Words like "vowel" and "consonant" and "semivowel" properly refer to the sounds of English.

Now, the way that English spelling works, there's some correlation between letters and sounds; there are five letters that are usually involved in representing vowel sounds, twenty letters that are usually involved in representing consonant sounds, and one letter that can't make up its mind ("sometimes Y"). So it's quite common to talk about "a silent vowel" or "the five vowels", even though those phrases make no sense in the context of English speech. This is absolutely fine; but you shouldn't let it deceive you about what it means to be a "vowel": the letters are "vowels" only because they usually represent vowel sounds.

Also, many people have a rather fuzzy understanding of this fact, so even when people are specifically trying to explain vowels and consonants, they very often trip themselves up by focusing on the letters instead of the sounds. (I'm not sure, but I think this happens firstly because writing is more tangible than speech — it's easier to see the two separate letters in <th> than the two separate sounds in "U" /juː/ — and secondly because we learn about writing explicitly in school, so we have a better conscious understanding of it and a better vocabulary for talking about it.)


Once you understand that, I think the answer is obvious: in suede and penguin, the letter <u> is still the same letter it always is, so by convention it's still (misleadingly) called a "vowel", even though it's not actually representing a vowel sound in these words. So, for example, if someone asks how many vowels are in the word /sweɪd/, what they usually really mean is, how many "vowel letters" are in the written word <suede>; and the answer is three.

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